Joe Biden calls him “Jo-Jo,” an affectionate nickname for the West Virginia senator who, at critical times in his presidency, has been the Joe holding all the cards.
And this week, Joe Manchin, a lone coal-state Democrat who has repeatedly opposed the president’s most ambitious legislative aspirations, derailed weeks of negotiations seeking an agreement on a version reduced of Biden’s economic program that would win his support. .
With Congressional scrutiny at stake, Democrats hoped to reach a deal that would deliver on their campaign promises to tackle global warming and expand the social safety net by the end of the month, giving lawmakers a legislative achievement. on which to campaign in the fall. But Manchin’s latest gamble all but ensured that the Democrats’ greatest ambitions would not come true.
“Rage keeps me from crying,” said Sen. Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts and Green New Deal sponsor, wrote on Twitter late Thursday, when news of Manchin’s opposition broke. “Resolve keeps me from despairing.”
In a private discussion Thursday, Manchin told Democratic leaders he could not support a bill containing new spending to fight climate change or raising taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations.
By Friday morning, he had clarified his position. It was “not prudent” for Democrats to approve a major spending package as Americans faced painfully high costs for food, fuel and rent, the 74-year-old said in a statement. radio interview.
“Inflation is taking a toll on everyone’s life,” Manchin told host Hoppy Kercheval.
But he offered an ultimatum: Democrats could agree to a narrow deal now or try to pass a broader plan later, if economic forecasts improve.
With his economic agenda in jeopardy, Biden urged Democrats in Congress to accept what they could do immediately to reduce health care costs and pledged to act unilaterally on the climate crisis.
The demands came at an inauspicious time for party leaders: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who led the shaky talks with Manchin, is stuck in quarantine at his Brooklyn home after being diagnosed with Covid as Biden was on a high-stakes trip to the Middle East. The president outlined his preferred course of action in a statement sent after holding a contentious meeting with Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in which rising fuel prices and oil production topped the list. the agenda.
“Let me be clear: If the Senate does not act to address the climate crisis and strengthen our national clean energy industry, I will take strong executive action to respond at this time,” he said. he declared.
It was indeed an acknowledgment that after more than a year of torturous negotiations, Manchin could not be moved, neither by the militants, nor by his colleagues, nor even by the President of the United States.
“At some point, you have to take the man at his word that he won’t do what he says he won’t do,” said Christopher Regan, a former vice chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party who worked with Manchin.
In a Senate evenly divided between parties, any Democrat could play king or queenmaker. But no one has done it more boldly or more frequently than Manchin.
Fiscally conscious and socially conservative, Manchin is blatantly out of step with today’s Democratic party — and he knows it. At one point he even offered to quit the Democratic Party if his colleagues thought he would become too “embarrassing” – an offer he said they flatly rejected.
Manchin comes from a West Virginia political family, part of a legacy of industrial-era Democrats who formed the party’s blue-collar base. Once one of the most reliable Democratic states, West Virginia began to turn sharply against the party, as the party bled support from working-class white voters. In 2020, every county in West Virginia voted for Donald Trump.
Manchin, who began his career in state politics and served as governor, has so far defied the state’s rightward shift. He was elected to the Senate in 2010, two years after Biden left to become vice president, and was re-elected in 2018.
His victory helped Democrats build their fragile majority, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the 51st vote and tiebreaker.
Reaching consensus was not easy. Manchin’s vote was key to approving Biden’s judicial nominees, and he ultimately approved the president’s massive Covid relief legislation over the unanimous Republican opposition.
But Manchin has joined Republicans in jeopardizing some of Biden’s nominations, including Neera Tanden, whom the president has tapped to lead the Office of Management and Budget and Sarah Bloom Raskin, whom he has chosen to serve on the Reserve. federal. Neither have been confirmed.
Manchin is also a strong advocate of filibuster, a Senate rule requiring 60 votes to advance legislation that he says encourages consensus in a deeply tribal chamber. Even when Republicans tested that view by filibustering a suffrage bill he framed as a compromise solution to the issue, Manchin, joined by Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona , remained firm.
It’s a position that puts Democrats at odds with Biden, an avowed institutionalist who nevertheless endorsed changing the filibuster rules to pass voting rights legislation and abortion protections.
In recent weeks, Biden has repeatedly referenced their opposition, telling Democrats “we need two more senators” to break the current stalemate that has crippled much of his agenda.
Nothing has angered Democrats more than Manchin’s opposition to Biden’s economic agenda.
Known as Build Back Better, it began with New Deal-sized ambitions that, even at their slimmest level, would still have dramatically expanded the social safety net and invested in critical efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
After months of frantically cutting and adapting legislation to meet Manchin’s demands, the senator abruptly drove a stake through the heart of the Democrats’ plan. Adding insult to injury, in the eyes of his colleagues, he announced his decision during an interview on Fox News. The reveal was so unexpected that it surprised host Bret Baier, who asked for clarification: “Are you done? It’s a no?
He had finished.
Talks on a simplified version of the bill began quietly earlier this year. Democratic leaders and the White House sought to keep expectations low even as demoralized party supporters demanded action. Manchin says he’s open to a plan that would reduce the cost of prescription drugs and extend Affordable Care Act grants that would expire at the end of the year.
Manchin’s approach has infuriated Democrats, especially progressives who believe he negotiated in bad faith, raising hopes before dashing them when a deal appears within reach.
“What he’s made clear time and time again is that he can’t get the deal done and you can’t trust anything he says,” said Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Told reporters on Friday.
Manchin, seemingly impervious to liberal pressures, argues that he was the one who was consistent from the start, expressing concern over rising inflation even as the president falsely claimed it would turn out “ transient”. New data from June showing prices rose 9.1% over the past 12 months prompted Manchin’s apparent reversal on the tax and climate provisions of the Democrats’ plan. In a statement, Manchin warned that new spending proposals risked inflaming inflation, which he called “a clear and present danger to our economy.”
Activists in West Virginia and Washington have tried to cajole him with protests, sit-ins and ad campaigns. A group of climate activists in kayaks once held up signs that read ‘don’t sink our bill’ during a ‘flotilla’ protest outside his houseboat, Almost Heaven, where he lives when he is in Washington. Even Senator Bernie Sanders weighed in, with an op-ed in a West Virginia newspaper that drew Manchin’s ire.
West Virginia has always maintained that it votes in the interests of its state, historically poor and hurt by the decline of the coal industry.
But critics are skeptical, especially about his stance on climate legislation. Manchin is the biggest beneficiary of Senate campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry and has earned millions through his family’s coal business.
“Senators have told me and others that negotiating with Joe Manchin is like negotiating with an Etch-a-Sketch,” said Norm Ornstein, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. said of Manchin’s opposition. “It appears to be a coal-powered Etch-a-Sketch.”
In Friday’s radio interview, Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, indicated he might be interested in further action on the climate crisis, if inflation starts to ease. calm down this summer.
Whether Manchin and Biden can reach an agreement on the president’s highest legislative priority ahead of the November election will likely have profound implications for their party, but also, potentially, for the senator’s political future.
“There are no friends for [Manchin] after that,” said Regan, who worked in West Virginia Democratic politics. “He’s completely alienated from the Democratic Party that has backed him all along and he’s nowhere near right-wing enough for the West Virginia Republican Party.”